One of England’s biggest academy chains is testing pupils’ mental health using an AI (artificial intelligence) tool which can predict self-harm, drug abuse and eating disorders, Sky News can reveal.
A leading technology think tank has called the move “concerning”, saying “mission creep” could mean the test is used to stream pupils and limit their educational potential.
The Academies Enterprise Trust has joined private schools such as Repton and St Paul’s in using the tool, which tracks the mental health of students across an entire school and suggests interventions for teachers.
This month, 50,000 schoolchildren at 150 schools will take the online psychological test, called AS Tracking, including 10,000 Academies Enterprise Trust pupils.
Teachers say use of the tool is “snowballing” as it offers a way to ease the pressure on teenagers struggling to deal with social media scrutiny and academic stress.
Dr Simon Walker, a cognitive scientist who conducted studies with 10,000 students in order to develop AS Tracking, says this allows teachers to hear pupils’ “hidden voice” – in contrast to traditional surveys, which tend to ask more direct questions.
“A 13-year-old girl or boy isn’t going to tell a teacher whether they’re feeling popular or thinking about self harm, so getting reliable information is very difficult,” he says.
Once a child has finished the questionnaire, the results are sent to STEER, the company behind AS Tracking, which compares the data with its psychological model, then flags students which need attention in its teacher dashboard.
“Our tool highlights those particular children who are struggling at this particular phase of their development and it points the teachers to how that child is thinking,” says STEER co-founder Dr Jo Walker.
Neil Woods led part of the Academies Enterprise Trust pilot of AS Tracking, in Tendring Technology College in Essex. He says that since introducing it the college has seen a 20% decrease in self harm.
“We’ve had a number of students where this has really significantly helped,” he says.
“There is a mental health crisis, we know that. This tool is not going to solve it, but it’s going to help us identify those students who may need the support.”
The AS Tracking dashboard labels children red, amber or green according to their level of mental wellbeing. STEER, which provides training in the use of its tool, say this is necessary in order to make the complex data accessible for teachers.
However, technology experts warn that such rankings could be misused.
“With these types of technologies there is a concern that they are implemented for one reason and later used for other reasons,” said Carly Kind, director of the Ada Lovelace Institute.
“There is the scope for mission creep, where somebody in a school says this would be a great tool to sort children into different classrooms, or decide which students should go on to university and which shouldn’t.”
AS Tracking costs a school with 1,200 pupils up to £25,500 a year. According to STEER’s own figures, the psychological biases it tests for are linked to risks of self-harm, bullying and not coping with pressure in 82% of cases.
Once pupils have finished at school, they get their AS Tracking data in an app which they can use to see their own progress.
The National Education Union cautiously welcomed AS Tracking’s growth.
“Exploring new ways for students to ask for help might be valuable, but aren’t a substitute for giving teachers time to know their students and maintain supportive relationships,” deputy general secretary Amanda Brown told Sky News.
Mr Wood, who also oversees art and music therapy at Tendring Technology College, agreed. “It’s the wraparound interventions that you give to students that are important,” he said.
“It’s not just that we are looking at the data in one context, we are looking at their academic profile, we’re looking at their pupil voice, we’re looking at what parents are actually saying to us and AS Tracking is just another part of the puzzle.”